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17 April 2016updated 02 Sep 2021 12:12pm

How a 2010 air crash is still dividing Poland

The conspiracy theories around the Smolensk crash continue to unsettle Polish politics six years' later.

By Ola Cichowlas

A national tragedy is thought to bring a country together, but in Poland the opposite is true. Last weekend in Warsaw, Poles marked six years since the plane carrying the former president Lech Kaczynski and 95 others crashed near Smolensk military airport in Russia. It was the first anniversary of the disaster since the late president’s twin brother, Jarosław Kaczynski, returned to power as the leader of the right-wing Law and Justice Party. Unity was nowhere to be seen.

A heated conspiracy divides Poland, making a sincere remembrance of the crash virtually impossible. Kaczynski’s nationalist party rejects the findings of an independent investigation that ruled the crash was caused by pilot error in poor visibility. Instead, it maintains that foul play caused the accident, pointing the finger at the previous Polish government, led by Donald Tusk, now president of the European Council, and the Kremlin.

The Smolensk conspiracy was born as soon as the terrible news from Russia reached Poland. It had all the necessary elements. The plane carrying Poland’s first official delegation to Russia was travelling to mark the anniversary of
the 1940 Katyn Massacre, in which the Soviet secret police executed 20,000 Poles – an act they blamed on the Nazis until as recently as 1994.

Poland is a young democracy, one that holds on to memories of occupation and betrayal, with a deep mistrust of Russia and a historic fear of being abandoned by the West. It did not take long before the victims of the Smolensk plane crash were being likened to those who died in Katyn and referred to as “the fallen”: casualties in yet another crime that Poland’s enemies inside and outside the country would prefer to cover up. According to this interpretation of events, Lech Kaczynski is a martyr: the only president who strove towards a truly independent Poland, and paid the ultimate price.

Few believed this back in 2010, but an unrelenting campaign by right-wing media outlets has given the Smolensk conspiracy political force. After Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party won parliamentary elections in October last year, the new government opened a second commission to investigate the plane crash, this time led by the defence minister, Antoni Macierewicz, who has publicly claimed that the plane was brought down by bomb explosions on board.

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“One wanted to kill our memory, as one was afraid of it. Because someone is responsible,” Kaczynski told his supporters at the rally on Sunday. “The previous government is responsible.”

Kaczynski was addressing diehard supporters, to whom he speaks regularly, on the tenth day of every month at a vigil for Smolensk. The appearances have given rise to a new word in the Polish language: “miesiecznica”, which translates loosely as “monthiversary.” Each month, Kaczynski attends mass in Warsaw’s Old Town before leading a crowd to the presidential palace, where he gives a short speech. “We are marching towards the truth,” he told the crowd this year at the 69th monthiversary.

Warsaw has grown used to these events. Extra police patrol through the city centre and bus routes to the Old Town are diverted. Those who attend the vigils are known as the “defenders of the cross”, a reference to a crucifix that was installed by Boy Scouts outside the presidential palace on the day of the crash. Five months later, authorities tried to remove it, in the process making it a symbol for those who hope to defend “the truth” against a secular, unpatriotic establishment, hell-bent on destroying the reality of what happened in Smolensk.

The so-called “fight for the cross” came as a welcome gift to the Catholic Church, which has long been unhappy about what it sees as its diminished role in Polish life. The fallout around Smolensk has found powerful advocates within Poland’s Catholic hierarchy. It is talked up right across the media empire owned by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, a Torun-based cleric and businessman who runs an ultra-conservative radio station and TV channel. Kaczynski often thanks Rydzyk for his support at meetings and rallies. Shortly after Law and Justice won the election last year, Kaczynski told a group of assembled priests that “we could not have done it without him”, without needing to explain to whom he referred.

Law and Justice hides or exposes its “defenders of the cross” depending on the political climate: whether it needs to mobilise support or present a gentler face. The group supported Kaczynski even when he was losing elections and low in the polls. The defenders of the cross are useful in helping keep the emotions around Smolensk high or to mobilise in the lead-up to party events. At other times they are a hindrance, as the party seeks to be considered more moderate. The foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, said Kaczynski’s rhetoric at the anniversary rally was “speaking to a different audience”.

President Andrzej Duda also made a speech to mark the anniversary. Although he accused the previous government of gross misconduct, he appealed for Poles to “forgive each other”. But Kaczynski – who holds no official government position – was keen to emphasise that real power lies with him. “Forgiveness is necessary,” he said. “But only after guilt and appropriate punishment.”

It remains unclear what the endgame of these accusations will be but the anti-Tusk rhetoric among Law and Justice politicians is rising. On Monday the speaker of the senate, Stanisław Karczewski, told Polish radio: “Tusk betrayed his president and went to Putin. I will never forgive him for that.” Asked if he thinks Tusk should face court in Poland, he replied: “Probably, probably.”

At the rally on Sunday, a stage was set up in front of the presidential palace for the projection of the trailer for a new film that claims the plane crash was no accident. There is a parallel universe in Poland now, in which rational dialogue and understanding play no part. In that universe, Poland cannot remember the victims of the crash without a political show. 

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This article appears in the 13 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster